Swiss scientists have discovered encasing DNA in glass and chilling it down can preserve data encoded in it for millions of years, moving them closer to an entirely new, and better, way to store the world’s information.
Researchers first turned data into DNA and then retrieved it two years ago, but it degraded too quickly to be useful as a long-term storage device. But nature already had a solution.
Chill DNA down and fossilize it, and it can last for millions of years. When scientists discovered a woolly mammoth in Siberia in 2013, they were ecstatic to find the region’s icy conditions had left the 40,000-year-old fossil so well-preserved that they were able to extract long strands of DNA that gave them hope that they could someday clone the extinct beast.
The team at ETH Zurich couldn’t exactly wait thousands of years for natural fossilization to occur, but they achieved a similar effect by encasing strands of DNA in glass. Store the glass pods at around 50 degrees Fahrenheit and accurate data could still be extracted up to 2,000 years later. At 0 degrees, it can survive 2 million years, according to New Scientist.
Scientists create data-encoded DNA by taking advantage of its innate coding language. DNA is made up of four chemicals — commonly known as A, C, G and T, that can be converted into the 1s and 0s we are already accustomed to using for data storage. As Quartz noted, it’s an incredibly efficient system:
One gram of DNA can potentially hold up to 455 exabytes of data, according to the New Scientist. For reference: There are one billion gigabytes in an exabyte, and 1,000 exabytes in a zettabyte. The cloud computing company EMC estimated that there were 1.8 zettabytes of data in the world in 2011, which means we would need only about 4 grams (about a teaspoon) of DNA to hold everything from Plato through the complete works of Shakespeare to Beyonce’s latest album (not to mention every brunch photo ever posted on Instagram).
It’s still cheaper to produce hard drives than DNA data pools, so you can keep showing off your 1 TB flash drive. But DNA data storage could someday have a profound effect on how we pass down our archives from one generation to the next.